For a very long time, fat was perceived as the enemy of weight loss. Now, for the past couple of decades, it is "carbs" that’s been so often described as the evil food. So, who do we believe? What do we put in our plates? How do we make sure we eat what’s best for a healthy weight and a healthy body?
Let me tell you more about carbohydrates, and I bet that once you have read this article, things will be much clearer.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates - let’s call them carbs - are vital to our body. They are the primary fuel for our brain and muscles. They are actually the sole source of fuel for our brain, unless we are experiencing starvation.
Make sure to truly think about this: if we do not eat carbs, our brain is not nourished and our body has close to no energy at all.
Carbs are the sole source of fuel for our brain, unless we are experiencing starvation.
I have worked with so many clients who had experienced chronic fatigue and foggy brain when on a low-carb or no-carb diet, such as keto. Some of them thought they were lazy and not focused enough. If that has ever been your case, you now know why. Carbs are critical to our health!
Carbs include 3 components: fiber, starch, and sugar.
Fiber and starch are what we call complex carbs, while sugar is a simple carb. How much of each of these 3 components is found in a specific food is very important in determining the nutritious quality of that food. To keep things simple, let's just remember that the more fiber, the better, and the less sugar the better.
The more fiber, the better, and the less sugar, the better.
We often mix up carbs and starch. Starch, which we find in foods such as potatoes, flour, corn, rice, and many vegetables is one type of carbs. Usually one type we eat way too much of - we will get back to it later!
What do carbs do to our body?
Carbohydrates, when we eat them, are transformed into glucose, which is going to travel from our guts to our blood, and then to all the cells in our body that need fuel (mostly muscles and brain). What's not used by our muscles and brain will be stored in our liver and fat cells, for future use. It is important that we store energy for when we are not eating, for instance at night. Problems arise when we store too much because we take in too many calories.
Simple carbs are quick to be digested. As a result, they give us a sudden boost of energy, because as soon as we eat them, the glucose level in our blood will rise pretty quickly and pretty high. Unfortunately, this burst of energy is short lived and often leaves us tired, sleepy, and even sometimes dizzy and light-headed.
Complex carbs, on the hand, provide energy for a longer period of time and don’t make our blood sugar peak as much. They take longer to be digested and they provide a more gradual increase of our blood sugar. As a result, they don’t make our energy level as unstable as simple carbs. They also keep us full longer.
Complex carbs provide energy for longer periods of time and keep our blood sugar more stable.
If you want an easy way to recognize simple carbs from complex carbs, download the cute infographic that my youngest daughter helped me put together for you. It will save you some headache and make things much simpler.
How do I chose the best carbs?
No need to make things complicated. The best carbs for a healthy body are complex carbs, unless you are in the middle of a marathon and need some quick energy to get to the finish line. Or similar experience, obviously.
The best way to get good quality carbs is to make sure your carbs include plenty of fiber.
Not the processed stuff that you find in breakfast cereals or supposedly “whole wheat bread”. Don’t trust the claims made on packaged foods, 99% of the time, they are pure marketing. I regularly teach a class where I go deep into decoding food labels, so I won’t get into the details here, but if you want to learn more, just reach out to me and I will be happy to help.
REAL fiber, and thus high-quality complex carbs, is mostly found in unprocessed foods such as vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole fruit, and whole grain. Again, by whole grain, I mean REAL whole grain, which is the grain that you can recognize just by looking at it. Brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, barley, millet are some examples of whole grain that you can cook and eat just like you would eat pasta - which is processed and usually pretty low in fiber.
Whole grain is the grain you can recognize just by looking at it.
When you start adding nutritious REAL unprocessed carbs into your diet, you will notice that there won’t be as much room for refined/processed carbs such as packaged cereals, crackers, bread, chips, pastries, candy, etc. You will start cleaning your body from many of the additives that are addictive and harmful to your health. You will experience a higher energy level and might finally get OFF the sugar roller-coaster ride.
Will I gain weight if I eat carbs?
As we have seen before, carbs, whether they are healthy complex carbs or unhealthy highly-processed simple carbs, will be turned into glucose.
Because it is unhealthy for us to have a high level of glucose in our blood, our body will make sure to remove the sugar from our blood and transport it into our cells. If we are physically active, a lot of this glucose will be used by our muscles. But if we are just sitting and not needing much energy at the time, most of the blood glucose will be stored as fat in our fat cells and liver.
So, the answer is yes!
Whatever carbs we are eating, they have the ability to be stored as fat if we eat more food than what our body needs.
Now, green leafy vegetables will not lead to your storing as much fat as potatoes, rice, and other starchy foods because they are not as dense when it comes to calories. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to limit the amount of starchy food you eat if you are trying to lose weight. it's not the starch itself that is an issue, it is the calories.
How much carbs should I eat?
There is no straight answer to that question, unfortunately. As you have understood by now, it really depends on how physically active you are and also the type of carbs you eat. It also depends on your metabolism, but we won't get there today.
The general recommendation is that 45% and 65% of our food intake is made up of carbs. But again, you will get very different results depending on the type of carbs you eat. Eating a bowl of cauliflower soup will not have the same impact on your body and energy level as eating a bowl of breakfast cereals that your child left on the table. It also doesn't contain the same amount of calories!
There are 2 things we need to keep in mind.
- First, our body LOVES starch and sugar. Fiber? Not necessarily so much!
- Second, most of us have a very sedentary lifestyle and a lot of the carbs we eat are not used by our muscles. It's not linked to the fact that they are carbs. It is linked to the fact that we eat too much food - aka too many calories - compared to our needs.
As a result, most of us eat too many carbs compared to what we need, and to make matter worse, we don't eat the healthy ones since we go for processed foods, which are mostly simple and low-quality carbs.
The fact that so many of us eat too many carbs is one of the reasons why low-carb or no-carb diets seem to apparently work - at least for a short period of time. Until we fall off the wagon and the lack of carbs backfires, which often leads to regaining all the weight we had lost and a few extra pounds along the way.
How do I eat less carbs?
One doesn't need to go all the way to low-carb or no-carb to experience the benefits of eating less carbs. Just like it's been proven that a no-fat diet is not a healthy sustainable solution, a low- or no-carb diet is also not the panacea if you are trying to achieve a healthy weight.
Rather than count grams of carbs and makes things painfully complicated and extremely depriving, why don’t you look at your food intake and make sure that most of your carbs come from vegetables, legumes, truly unprocessed whole grain, and fresh fruits. This will help you reduce your portions. Make sure to drastically limit your intake of processed carbs such as pastry, bread, and snack foods. They are not as nutritious as whole foods and again, they bring with them loads of calories our body doesn't need.
No need to measure precisely or weigh your food!
If you are having a dinner plate full of pasta just a few hours before going to bed, chances are that you will be eating too many carbs - and actually too many calories, period. Even more so if you add a glass of wine (sugar), a piece of bread, and a little treat for dessert! No need to go full blown no-carb or keto to change that type of diet. Cut your pasta portion in half and use green veggies or lettuce to cover the rest of your plate and still feel full. You will drastically reduce the amount of processed carbs you eat, but also, the amount of calories you take in.
So what? No treats anymore?
Of course, you can enjoy a ‘treat’ now and then. Just be aware of how much you consume and remember that those treats are not bringing quality nutrients to your body. You eat them for pleasure, not for fuel, so make sure they really bring you the satisfaction you are after.
Take time to enjoy them, don’t eat them out of habit, and if you eat them for dessert, eat broccoli or string beans rather than potatoes or white rice for that meal.
One thing that is very important is to embrace your food choices and NOT FEEL GUILTY about them. When you DECIDE to have a treat, go for it and really savor it! Food is fuel for our body, yes, indeed, but it is also more than that. Food is meant to be enjoyed.
Embrace your food choices and do not feel guilty about them!
This is also why it is important to not worry too much about specific numbers, grams of carbs, or precise calorie count. This type of fine-tuning is only necessary for athletes or for someone dealing with a specific health condition. Most of us will be better off just looking at general trends and make sure that we get most of our energy from complex carbs rather than simple carbs and from whole foods rather than processed foods. If we do that, we will see a difference in our energy level and in our weight.
Again, this cute infographic will help you easily visualize what types of foods will help you reach your weight management goals and what foods won't.
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